By Matt Buxton
It's nearly impossible to determine just how pervasive sex trafficking -- forcing women and men into prostitution -- is in Alaska.
Inconsistent records, underreporting and a lack of research have clouded the situation, Cook Inlet Tribal Council analyst Lisa Moreno said at a workshop on sex trafficking during the Rural Providers' Conference on Tuesday in Fairbanks.
"We have absolutely no idea how often this is happening in Alaska," she said, explaining the problem. "It's a very, very lucrative crime, so it's hidden, so if we only try to use prosecuted cases it'll be very undercounted."
The secrecy also has made it difficult to fight, especially in the small, rural communities that many of the conference-goers serve in a wide number of roles.
It thus was a good first step, Moreno said, to see Gov. Sean Parnell begin the conference day by signing a sweeping bill aimed at combating sex crimes in Alaska.
Senate Bill 22, as Parnell described it, aims to give law enforcement, courts and communities the tools necessary to prosecute sex and trafficking crimes.
"You're on the front lines of that every day," Parnell said to the audience. "What I can tell you is the state is a willing partner. ... We want to be able to provide a safe place in Alaska."
The bill expands protections to victims. It eliminates the statute of limitations for cases involving child pornography and trafficking. It gives trafficking victims better access to resources to get their lives on track.
It also expands the court's ability to track perpetrators and prohibits them from contacting victims while in custody.
Additionally, statutes were amended to prohibit probation and parole officers from engaging in sexual conduct with someone on probation or parole.
Parnell said that while he's seen success from public outreach efforts such as his Choose Respect rallies, there's still more work to do. The state's legal and criminal system is just one part; the community and service providers, like those present at the conference, are integral to prevention, intervention and support, he said.
"The rural providers are on the front lines," he said. "This bill gives them more tools."
Back on the fourth floor of the Tanana Chiefs Conference's Chief Peter John Tribal Building that afternoon, Moreno told the counselors and social workers that the bill is a good first step, but that it still will be up to them to identify and help victims of sexual trafficking and other crimes.
"What needs to happen is that service providers have the resources to know what to look for," she said.
She said most sexual trafficking victims are dismissed as prostitutes, but almost all have been traumatized and coerced into it.
"These victims don't come in and say they're a victim. They're probably your toughest clients that trust nobody," she said. "These are highly traumatized people. Every system they have been involved in has failed them. ... They really need someone who is going to track them down. They just need someone who is going to glue themselves to them. Help advocate for them. Follow through. Keep promises."